Scott Fowler

Panthers’ cerebral Kurt Coleman turns heads with opportunistic play

jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

There were 20 media members clustered around cornerback Josh Norman’s locker Thursday night after the Carolina Panthers decimated Dallas, 33-14.

Safety Kurt Coleman had two waiting for him.

Coleman is the Panthers’ defensive back who was tied for the NFL lead with five interceptions before Sunday’s games. He was also the player who set the tone for the win over the Cowboys with a 36-yard interception return for his first career touchdown only 59 seconds into the game. But Norman is the quote machine, the player who can be counted on for Twitter- and ESPN-ready soundbites.

Coleman doesn’t care about how little attention he gets, though, on a team with several big personalities. In fact, he egged on Norman (who he calls “J-No”) throughout the cornerback’s interview, reminding Norman to call himself “The Dark Knight.” Norman immediately wove that analogy into his “Dez Bryant disrespected us” narrative while Coleman watched from 5 feet away, smiling.

“You know what?” Coleman said. “I’ve got to let J-No be J-No, because that’s what makes him great. He is the best cornerback in this league. For myself, I like to stay even keel. I don’t like to ride the wave of emotions.”

Coleman instead plays a little more like Luke Kuechly. Like Kuechly, Coleman is a head-before-heart defender. Coleman emphasizes pregame study but also throws in an occasional celebration to spice things up after a big play (in his case, it is a biceps flex).

“I like to meditate, really be a thinker,” said Coleman, whose father has been a principal and a teacher in Ohio for many years. “The game is a cerebral game. As physical as it is, there are a lot of mental components that go into it.”

The interception against Dallas was the fifth this season and the 15th of Coleman’s six-year NFL career, but the first he had run back for a touchdown. He still bemoans a couple of cutbacks he didn’t take that might have led to earlier scores. And when I mentioned that it seemed like he had caught almost every possible interception thrown his way this season, he immediately brought up a play against Green Bay in which he nearly picked off Aaron Rodgers.

“That should have been No. 6,” Coleman said. “I’m still waiting for definitive evidence that I dropped that one.”

Coleman, 27, was one of those great mid-level finds by general manager Dave Gettleman that has fueled what will soon be three straight seasons of NFC South championships. He played four years in Philadelphia (where he overlapped with current Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott) and another in Kansas City before the Panthers signed him to a modest two-year, $2.8-million deal in March.

On a defense that led the NFL in interceptions with 18 entering Sunday’s games, Coleman is one of the least heralded players on the unit but this year has been one of the most valuable.

Kuechly had two interceptions Thursday. But when asked about his prowess in that department, Kuechly pointed across the locker room to the team’s interception leader.

“Talk to Kurt,” he said. “He’s winning that race.”

Coleman likely won’t set the Panthers’ single-season record in that department – cornerback Doug Evans had eight interceptions in Carolina’s 1-15 season of 2001. But he’s happy to be a starter on an 11-0 Panthers team that dreams of bigger things. And if he keeps making interceptions at this rate, he won’t be able to stay in the background for long.

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